For the first two centuries of the Spanish empire the vast region draining from the Andes to the river Plate at Buenos Aires is the least regarded part of Latin America. It lacks the gold or silver which attract adventurers across the Atlantic to Mexico and Peru. There is no direct link with Spain, all official contact being through the viceregal capital at Lima. Most of the early settlements are established by colonists moving into the region from Peru or Chile. In 1726 Buenos Aires has a population of only 2200.
But the area’s status gradually improves during the 18th century, particularly after an administrative reorganization in 1776.
Until this time the region has been part of the viceroyalty of Peru, administered at very long range from Lima. In 1776 the entire area, from the eastern Bolivian highlands through Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina to the southern tip of the continent, is given separate status as the viceroyalty of La Plata with its capital at Buenos Aires.
The people of Buenos Aires discover an exciting new sense of pride in 1806, after a British fleet arrives and captures the city. The Spanish viceroy flees ignominiously, whereupon Creole militia led by Santiago de Liniers expel the intruders on their own. For three years Liniers rules in place of the absent viceroy. Buenos Aires is now in the mood to seize any future opportunities.
Argentina and San Martín: AD 1810-1816
Argentina takes its first step towards independence more easily than most other regions of the Spanish empire, partly because of the events of 1806-9 in Buenos Aires. When developments in Spain in 1808 force a choice of allegiance, a cabildo abierto (open town meeting) in Buenos Aires on 25 May 1810 quickly decides to set up an autonomous local government on behalf of the deposed Ferdinand VII.
However this first step is soon followed by violent conflict with opposing royalist forces elsewhere in the province. News of this conflict brings back to Buenos Aires an Argentinian-born officer serving in the Spanish army, José de San Martín.
When San Martín reaches Argentina in 1812, the patriot army is under the command of Manuel Belgrano, a Buenos Aires lawyer who has had his first military experience as a member of the Creole militia in 1806. In the early years of the war of independence Belgrano has successes against royalist troops in the foothills of the Andes in the extreme northwest of Argentina, at Tucuman (1812) and Salta (1813). But he is defeated further north, in Bolivia, later in 1813. In 1814 he is replaced as commander by San Martín.
These battles have all been close to the main source of royalist strength, the rich and conservative viceroyalty of Peru. San Martin concludes that Latin America’s independence will never be secure until Peru is conquered.
The independence of Argentina is formally proclaimed on 9 July 1816, abandoning any pretence that the junta has been governing on behalf of Ferdinand VII. (The decision is simplified by the reactionary and incompetent rule of the Spanish king after he recovers his throne in 1814.) Meanwhile San Martín is assembling and training an army for his long-term plan of campaign against Peru. He has decided on a two-pronged attack, beginning with an invasion of Chile.
He already has an important Chilean ally in Bernardo O’Higgins, a soldier closely involved in the beginnings of the independence movement in Chile but from 1814 a refugee in Argentina.
United Provinces of the Rio de la Plata: AD 1816-1828
San Martín marches west into Chile in January 1817, a few month’s after the formal declaration of full Argentinian independence. He leaves his compatriots in Argentina with the task of forming a nation out of what has been the vast but relatively uncentralized viceroyalty of La Plata.
The ambitions of many in Buenos Aires are that their city should remain the capital of the entire viceroyalty. But in 1817 this already looks a forlorn hope. Paraguay has resolutely gone its own way in 1811 and by 1814 is a region almost impenetrable to outsiders. Uruguay becomes a battle ground between Argentina and Brazil, until in 1828 both accept it as an independent buffer state between them.
This leaves a large area, consisting mainly of the great alluvial plain between the Andes and the Atlantic which forms the greater part of modern Argentina. But even this proves hard to hold together, with inland regions strongly resisting every attempt by Buenos Aires to prevail as a capital city.
The struggle between Unitarists (favouring centralization) and Federalists (demanding autonomy for the regions) becomes the main political issue in the early years of the republic. But the question is somewhat academic from 1835 during the dictatorship of Juan Manuel de Rosas – paradoxically the leader of the Federalists, yet a man with the personal power to control every region of the nation.
Rosas and Urquiza: AD 1835-1861
Argentina is geographically unlike other south American nations, with its vast open plains (the pampas, from an Indian word meaning a flat place) on which cattle are herded in Spanish imperial times by tough mestizo cowboys or gauchos (again probably from an Indian word, for vagabond).
This is the tradition which produces Juan Manuel de Rosas, the first strong man of independent Argentina. He is not himself a gaucho, for he comes from a noble Spanish family and owns extensive ranches, but he lives among the cowboys and trains them to his own tough standards. In the early years of independence he wins a formidable reputation as a leader of irregular troops.
In 1829 Rosas is elected governor of the province of Buenos Aires. By 1835 he has successfully imposed his will on all the other local governors. His status is now officially raised to that of dictator. Making effective use of personalismo (his portrait even features sometimes on church altars), he imposes on Argentina a brutally repressive conservative regime.
Rosas follows a vigorously nationalistic policy which pleases his people (he reacts strongly, for example, to the British seizure of the Falklands), but he goes too far when he intervenes in a Uruguayan civil war – lending his assistance in 1843 to a siege of Montevideo which eventually lasts for nearly nine years.
This embarrassment, together with Rosas’ failure to provide the provinces with a federal constitution, leads to his being toppled in 1851 by one of his own provincial governors, Justo José de Urquiza.
Urquiza gathers an army to raise the siege of Montevideo and defeats an army loyal to Rosas at Caseros in February 1852. He then calls a convention which provides Argentina, in 1853, with the required constitution. Urquiza is elected president in 1854 for a six-year term. The first capital, in a rotating sequence, is to be Paraná. But there is one glaring omission from this new confederation. Buenos Aires, insisting on leadership of the nation or nothing, refuses to join.
The issue is again resolved on the battlefield. In 1861, at Pavón, the provincial troops of Buenos Aires under Bartolomé Mitre defeat the national army under Urquiza. In the following year Mitre (a distinguished author and historian as well as soldier) is elected president. He moves the capital to Buenos Aires, where it has remained ever since – though its status as permanent capital is not formally accepted until 1880.
Argentina, after fifty years of independence, has finally established its political identity. Meanwhile its economic nature is about to undergo a transformation.
From gauchos to peones: late 19th century
The Argentinian pampas has traditionally been a lawless area, the preserve of wild cattle and horses (descendants of animals which have escaped from Spanish domestic use) and of equally wild gauchos. The only indigenous inhabitants of the area, the American Indians, are nearly exterminated by the colonists in a series of 19th-century wars. In 1878-9 the remaining Indians are either killed or are driven south into Patagonia in a campaign commanded by Julio Roca, a general who is voted into the presidency of Argentina in 1880 on the strength of this success.
His victory over the Indians is a significant step in a process which is steadily transforming the pampas.
As elsewhere in the world during the 19th century, the arrival of the railway opens up remote regions. Agricultural labourers can be easily attracted into previously inaccessible areas, and their products can be cheaply transported out. At much the same time barbed wire becomes available to fence in large areas. The owners of the great estancias (ranches) realize that wild herds and gauchos are an uneconomic use of these rolling acres. Far more profitable is the breeding of cattle and sheep; and in many parts of the pampas an even higher yield can be derived from harvests of wheat and corn.
The gaucho is no longer needed. The demand, in his place, is for peones or farm labourers.
With this new window of economic opportunity, the Argentinian government encourages immigration from Europe. By far the largest group of new arrivals are from Italy and Spain, with the Italians slightly the more numerous of the two. But there are also appreciable numbers of French, Germans, Poles, Turks and Russian Jews (more than three million newcomers arrive from Europe between 1860 and 1940).
Argentina already has a smaller indigenous Indian population than other parts of continental Latin America. To this it now adds a higher rate of immigration. It becomes the most European republic in south America. But as yet it is one where power and wealth remain in the hands of a very select few.
The Argentine Rural Society: AD 1866-1916
When the Argentinian rural economy begins to develop, in the second half of the nineteenth century, the fertile regions of the pampas are divided into vast estancias owned by no more than 300 families. Each estancia covers hundreds of thousands of acres.
With wealth in so few hands, oligarchy is almost inevitable. Argentine’s gilded few ensure that power remains within their own circle by means of an exclusive club, the Argentine Rural Society, founded in 1866. The presidency of Julio Roca in 1880 begins three decades in which the office (together with its material benefits) is passed from hand to hand among a small circle of friends and relations within the Rural Society.
By the 1890s this situation has prompted sufficient outrage for two opposition groups to be formed – the Radical party in 1892 (campaigning on behalf of all shades of political opinion against the corruption of the regime) and in 1895 the specifically left-wing Socialist party.
By 1912 political unrest is so potentially explosive that the ruling group reluctantly concedes electoral reform. There is now to be a secret ballot and universal male suffrage. At the next election, in 1916, the oligarchy is finally removed from power. The new president is the leader of the Radical party, Hipólito Irigoyen.